What's best about Far Cry 2? Is it the astonishingly beautiful African environment, so alive with movement, sound and realistic reaction to your actions that it might just be the best shooter sandbox of all time? Is it that the potential for eye-popping explosions, flying vehicle chassis and spiralling wood splinters awaits around every corner, above every ridge and in every chasm of the huge 50km square open world? Or is it the true freedom the game grants the player, allowing for a plot that has its roots in linear storytelling but provides tantalising off the beaten path branches?
The true answer is that there is no one thing that can be considered best about Far Cry 2. Its brilliance lies in the fact that it is more than the sum of its already impressive parts. Essentially the game is a playground that caters for whatever mood players find themselves in. Want to storm into an enemy encampment in broad daylight John Rambo style, perhaps running a few unfortunate soldiers down with a MG-mounted Jeep before letting loose with your grenade launcher? Go ahead. Prefer to fast-forward the incredible day/night cycle to midnight by taking a nap in one of the Safe Houses and sneak in under the cover of darkness before slicing and dicing from behind with your machete? Be the game's guest.
Ubisoft Montreal isn't, of course, the first developer to do open world shooting. Indeed last year's graphical tour de force Crysis is still fresh in our memories - as is the follow-up Crysis Warhead. But it is so well executed, so technically proficient that we can't help but feel it at least matches Crytek's shooter, and in some areas even surpasses it.
The game's first hour, however, might convince you otherwise, and it almost did for us. After choosing from a selection of nine refreshingly un-clichéd mercenaries, ranging from a 45-year-old Mauritian to a 38-year-old Algerian (when was the last time you could play a game as anyone not of American, British or Alien descent?), you're thrust into an unnamed African country being torn apart by two warring factions. Your mission: To kill The Jackal, an arms dealer who's fuelling both sides of the conflict with weapons, and making a mint as a result. You immediately run into problems - malaria wraps its diseased mitts around your innards, forcing you to collapse as soon as you arrive in town. You wake, groggily, and find The Jackal standing ominously above you. He knows everything - who you are, why you're here and how defenceless you've become as a result of the malaria. In pity, he hands you a machete and a hand gun, and lets you live. This is where Far Cry 2 kicks off.
Outside, all hell breaks loose. The United Front for Liberation and Labour (UFLL) and the Alliance for Popular Resistance (APR) are going at it in the streets. You make a break for it, dodging bullets as you head anywhere as long as it's away from certain death. But there is no escape - either you're shot or you collapse from the malaria.
You wake in a slaughter house just outside town. A merc, one that you did not pick to play as at the beginning of the game but is determined by that choice, now reckons you owe him a few favours on account of him saving your ass. From there, it's up to you what jobs you take on, whether it be paid work from the UFLL or APR (diamonds act as currency in Far Cry 2, which can be spent on upgrades), malaria pill jobs from various good Samaritans, weapon vendor jobs that unlock new purchasable gear, buddy jobs that improve your 'history' with the NPC mercs or assassination jobs dished out by a disguised voice heard from communication masts. What they all have in common, however, is combat, and it's here that Far Cry 2 initially frustrates.
We're used to developers holding our hands so tightly during game tutorials, and even beyond, that Far Cry 2 will at first jar with many due to the fact that it's actually pretty tough right from the start. Simply shooting stuff is difficult. On the Xbox 360 and PS3 (the versions tested), pressing LT or L1 will zoom in either down the barrel of your gun or through the sight and automatically snap to your target. From there, though, you'll have to move the left thumbstick yourself to aim and fire with RT or R1. This sounds like plenty of other shooters post-CoD2, right? Well, yes, it does. But you'll still find successfully killing lots of enemy soldiers during the first third of the game so hard you'll consider the combat a chore.
At the beginning of the game your weapons are, frankly, crap. You'll find the recoil offensive, the jamming so regular you'll tear your hair out and the enemies so hard to spot in your splendid surroundings that it won't be long before you grab a mouthful of dirt and taste the totally unforgiving save system. The healing system doesn't help. Whenever your health dips you can inject yourself with magic hit point juice via a press of LB or L2. That's fine. But when your health bar is almost up healing will instead trigger an animation where you gruesomely pick bullets out of the holes in your skin. The problem is that this animation, which takes about five seconds to complete, is interruptible by enemy fire. Invariably what happens in an encounter during the first few hours is you'll find yourself surrounded by enemies you can't see, peppered with bullets that bring you to within an inch of your life and unable to heal because the healing animation keeps getting interrupted. Then you die and reload from the last time you saved, usually miles away in a Safe House.